Expert Advice for Small-Group Facilitators

Why obedience and a caring heart are all you really need

Note: This article has been excerpted from the training tool called Small-Group Facilitator Orientation Guide.

Steve Gladen is pastor of the Small Group Network at Saddleback Church, where he oversees 2,500 adult small groups. In that capacity, he loves watching a big church become small through true community developed in group life. Steve is the author of several resources, including 250 Big Ideas for Small Groups and Don't Lead Alone.

How would you describe the role of a small-group facilitator?

First, a facilitator needs to be obedient, and I say that thinking of the 12 disciples. When Christ came and chose the 12 disciples, he didn't pick the most popular people, the most influential people, the people in the know—he didn't even pick the most biblically literate people. He looked for ordinary people willing to do extraordinary things if they'd follow him. When they followed in obedience he took them to doing extraordinary things.

So a facilitator is someone who says, "I don't have my act together, but I am obedient, so I'm willing." That's an important step because so many times people think, I have to be a bible scholarbefore I can lead a Bible study. But God doesn't call the equipped; he equips the called. And so the primary thing facilitators need to have in their DNA is obedience.

The second characteristic of a facilitator is just someone who cares. That's it. If you care about people and you're willing to facilitate, you can do it.

Functionally, how does facilitation of a group discussion differ from other "teaching" roles in the church?

On a macro level, whoever's running point in a group discussion—whether it's a leader, a host, a facilitator, or whatever you want to call them—they need to understand that they are not dispensing information, they're facilitating transformation. A lecturer or a Sunday school teacher dispenses information—they speak, you listen. But in a group, the facilitator is simply guiding, or shepherding, the people in the group so that they experience life change.

So the big distinction between the roles is: are you dispensing information—which we try not to have facilitators do in small groups—or are you facilitating transformation?

In your experience, what are some of the biggest challenges that facilitators face, particularly new facilitators?

Boy, I can think of a number of them, so I'll just rattle them off. At the top of the list would be an inability to stay focused. There's a great book out called Deadly Detours, and it lists seven or eight little things—and they can be good things—that tend to detour a church from its calling.

In the same way, the biggest challenge for facilitators is staying focused on why the group has gathered together—to grow and develop people. It's all about people. It's not about your agenda; it's not about the great lesson you wrote; it's not about all of the social things that the group likes to do. It's about life-on-life learning. So the facilitator has to help the group avoid getting sidetracked by knowing that there are a lot of good things and bad things that can hijack group discussions, but the group has to stay focused on helping people. You've just got to nail that one down first.

Another big challenge is fear. That's one of the biggest forces the enemy uses to stop us from taking a risk. The great thing about fear is that once you've taken a risk in the face of it, your faith grows. And that growing faith helps you to face the next opportunity with less fear. You can be scared that nobody will show up for the group meeting, for example. But if you take that risk and just one person shows up, faith tells you that's the one person God wants you to spend time with. Or you can be afraid that you won't have your act together during the discussion. But taking that risk gives God the opportunity to build your faith by demonstrating that He always has his act together.

So there are all kinds of fears that can creep up and try to paralyze us.

How can facilitators get over those fears?

One simply way is to remember your own personal God stories. If you've ever read through the Old Testament, you can think: How silly these Israelites are! God parted the sea. He gave them water from a rock. When they were hungry, they got manna. When they got tired of that, he gave them quail. How many signs do they need?

But I quickly find out that I'm just like the Israelites. I forget. And so I take the time to write down God moments. I have about 10 to 15 stories where God just supernaturally showed up in my life. I remember those when I face fear and they stand firm against it, to give me faith. So whenever you're fearful, just remember that the same God who took you through those experiences will take you through this one.

You also need people in your life. When you surround yourself in community, the people in your life bolster you against fear by supporting you and building you up. They form a protective wall around you that can help you take those steps that seem tricky now.

Other challenges for facilitators?

Another challenge we often don't think through enough is our curriculum diet. When you're raising kids, you don't ask them what they want to eat; you give them what they need to eat. In the same way, your group needs a healthy curriculum diet. At Saddleback, for example, we have a four-year curriculum plan to ensure that groups get a healthy diet.

Dealing with gossip in the group is another challenge. If you can understand Matthew 18:15–17, a lot of the battles of communication and conflict and gossip can be overcome before they grow. Facilitators need to be able to tell people who are gossiping about others in the group, "Did you talk to the person?" They need to understand that it's their job to stop gossip and conflict, biblically.

But on that subject of conflict, it can also be a challenge to see conflict as good, not bad. A lot of new facilitators experience conflict and say, "Oh, this is bad. We've got to jettison the group." But in reality, conflict is like a warning indicator in your car that flashes "check engine" or "low oil." Conflict just means the group is deficient in something. More times than not, it's communication. A huge bonding moment for groups is successfully working through conflict. As they go through it, they grow through it. The experience makes the group so much stronger.

From your experience, what are some good ways to deal with difficult people in a group discussion? I'm specifically thinking of people who talk too much, or don't talk at all.

Those are both very common, obviously. The first thing you need to remember when looking at your group is that all kinds of bugs are attracted to the light. So when you have the light of Christ, you're going to encounter every one of them.

But you can use the strengths and weaknesses of both types of people in order to help your group. The best way I know of to make the ground level for a quiet person is to use what we call sub-grouping. Whenever you have more than seven people, or whenever you have a meeting where everyone can't get a chance to talk, that's a sign you need to sub-group.

Sub-grouping is just breaking up into smaller units within the home, or within the lunchroom if you're doing a workplace group. Sometimes the quiet person is simply intimidated by the number of people looking at them when they express their opinion. But, when you make the group smaller, the quiet person can feel safe enough with fewer people that they open up. A good facilitator can also help by giving the quiet person an opportunity to answer easy questions so they can experience the victory of having people agree with them.

Tactically, something you can do with dominant people is to seat them right next to you. This takes them out of direct line of sight. When they get eye contact, they often take that as a green light to talk. So having them on your right and left side minimizes that. And it helps you direct the conversation to the quiet people by giving them eye contact. Also, it gives you a chance to lean over in a quiet moment and say to the dominant person, "Hey, help me get some other people involved."

A lot of the group discussions I've participated in have stayed pretty shallow. Do you have any suggestions for moving things deeper?

In real estate, it's all about location, location, location, right? Well in small groups, it's all about relationships, relationships, relationships. So if you want to move the group deeper, it's going to take relationships. If you want to hold people accountable, it's going to take relationships.

Don't be afraid to do relationship-building activities at the front end of a group. Fellowship is one of the things God has wired us for, and we tend to do it quite well. Building friends builds trust and trust allows people to be vulnerable with others. Vulnerability is the prerequisite to getting past shallow issues and getting deeper as a group. One caveat—groups can get stuck there and not move into deeper waters. Once you've built the relationship capital, you can start going deeper.

Tactically, you can start with the curriculum you study and the tools you use. Americans tend to know more of God's Word than they actually apply. So if you want to take your group deeper, the issue generally isn't how to get more biblical knowledge into them; it's how to get them to act on it.

What are the practical skills that are necessary for a person to facilitate a small-group discussion?

Often it's practical application of the Great Commandment. Love others as yourself. Treat people as you would like to be treated. If you have a heart for people, and can help everyone to get involved, you can facilitate a group. This is especially true in today's age, where video curriculum is so prominent. You don't have to be a master teacher to use DVD curriculum. But if you care for people, you can succeed.

One of the things I like about video curriculum is that it's great for starting a group. I think many, if not most, groups can grow beyond that, and they should. But in a society where people are practically trying to outrun the clock by scheduling their lives full, it's great to have already prepared lessons presented by effective and biblically sound teachers, so that you can concentrate on what you love to do. And when I facilitate my group, what I love to do is be with the people and love on them and challenge them.

So if you've got a heart for people, you can facilitate a group and make a difference in someone's life.

Interested in learning more about leading or facilitating a small group? Check out these great training resources from
  • Small-Group Facilitator—Orientation Guide: This guide has been specially designed to provide orientation and basic training for your church's new small-group facilitators and teachers. It's also a great way to help veteran facilitators and teachers review their responsibilities and refresh their understanding.
  • Small-Group Leader—Orientation Guide: This guide is designed to help you equip your church to provide orientation and basic training to new small group leaders, and to help seasoned small group leaders refresh themselves on their responsibilities. You may use it either for a group training session or to give individually to small group leaders.
  • Leading a Great Small-Group Bible Study: This tool will help you learn how to create a climate of growth and community within your Bible study group, including ways to use the group to reach seekers.

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